Hussein Haleem: The Games changed my life

Hussain Haleem’s life changed for good the day he became the Maldives’ first ever Olympic flag bearer, at Seoul 1988. In the latest video in our “Words of Olympians” series, the intrepid marathon runner tells his remarkable story.

Hussain Haleem of the Maldives made a little piece of national history at the Opening Ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, when, at the age of just 19, he became his country’s very first flag bearer.

Describing the impact that experience had on him, he says: “That was the first time Maldives actually participated [at the Games]. I got the honour of carrying the flag, and it’s very difficult to explain right now, because until 1988 I was a high-school dropout and I was just a nobody. But carrying the flag into the Olympic Stadium changed my whole life. That experience is still the best memory, or the best experience I have had so far in my life.”

Reflecting on an inspiring night and the change it bring about in him, he adds: “When I walked into that stadium with 100,000 people and I’m carrying the weight of my country, I felt I had a purpose, something to give back.

“I cannot be the old person that I was, because I was a high-school dropout and I was just running around the island doing nothing other than just running. I wanted to be a role model to my people so I started studying. I started doing night classes. I learned English and then because of my Olympic participation a few years later I got a scholarship from Australia to study, and I went there for five years.” 

Though Haleem failed to reach the finish line in the marathon in Seoul, he returned to the event at Barcelona 1992, where he came in 86th. Since then he has been doing a lot more than long-distance running.

As well as embarking on a PhD in sports coaching theory, he has become a national coach, a vice-president of the Maldives Olympic Committee and a member of the National Sports Council. To cap it all, in 2013 he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the National Defence Force, where he holds the position of director of sport.

Haleem continued his university studies in Sydney and the University of Otago in New Zealand and published a number of research papers. In recognition of his achievement in becoming the first Maldivian national to be presented with a sports PhD, he received the Presidential Award for Academic Excellence in 2006.

Displaying the same stamina and tenacity he once showed on the Olympic stage, the intrepid Haleem has come a long, long way since he carried the flag for his country that distant September afternoon in Seoul.